Detroit, Dance, and the Fela Frenzy

Fela Kuti, the Man

Written by Marcus R. White

Detroit is obsessed with FELA!  The dance-packed, theatrical musical  performance showcases some of the best and brightest in the industry.  My initial response to the production was “WOW, that was incredible.”  As an “informed” audience member, however, I wanted to take my analysis beyond the simple obvious amazing dance, theater, and musical excellence of the cast of FELA and show how Fela’s story is transformative for Detroit and the human experience abroad.

Detroit “Gets” FELA!

Institutions throughout the city have dedicated exhibits and mentions of the musical, creating a consistent “feel good” sentiment throughout many levels of our community.  The story of the man, Fela Kuti was presented in an accessible way to help connect the community, at least on the surface.  The Music Hall Detroit should be extremely proud of their ability to be the center of huge mobilization for the arts and culture in Detroit.   Beyond the actual performance the bringing together of so many community members cross class, culture, and race was inspiring to me and made me extremely hopeful for the city.

Transformations through “African” Dance Aesthetics

The movement vocabulary presented drew on experiences of contemporary African dance traditions. I am interested in the company’s ability to capture a unified understanding of “African” (more specifically Fela’s) aesthetics while being placed within the context of the American musical.  Fela’s music as presented in the musical helped shaped new dance forms or improve older dance traditions. It could be argued that his amalgamation of different sounds helped shape a new understanding of movement vocabularies.

I am most amazed at Bill T. Jones’ capturing the life and legacy of Fela Kuti through dance.  The strong connection to many of the original folkloric forms catapulted this musical as being one that is deeply rooted in African and African-American traditions.  This seems like an obvious understanding of Fela’s life and role in helping to develop the sounds in Nigerian and global music history; However, this compelled me to think about movement vocabulary and bodies within the Black diaspora.

Is FELA: The Musical limiting? 

Packaging the life of Fela within a two and a half hour production I imagine was a challenge for the creative team and introduced interesting choices about how to present his life.  Some of these choices may have been limiting and not truly capturing his life story.  I could agree with this point and even argued this point, but isn’t a strong skeleton of his legacy more productive to telling his story than no body of work at all?  Whatever your position the themes of struggle, resilience, and group thought were prevalent and stuck with me as messages I can think about in my own understanding of current socio-political issues.

Mr. Jones’ involvement in the project makes sense to me.  His sensibilities around political action could match closely with Fela Kuti’s in that both demonstrate that art can be the center of action to improve the way of life for humans throughout the globe.

Congratulations Cast of FELA and Good Luck to You for Future Shows!

The cast of FELA! in action

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